Even Seculars Pine for Messiahs

There’s little doubt that human beings seem to like the idea of messiahs, deus ex machinas that will save us in our darkest hours. Obviously, even we seculars find something appealing about it, or else we’d be rolling our eyes, or else outright rejecting, stories that are messiah-tastic, such as Harry Potter, Dune (Paul Atreides), and even Lord of the Rings (Frodo and Aragorn are both “foretold”).

At The American ScholarWilliam Deresiewicz sees a pining for messiahs throughout more than our fiction, but in our very response to word events and technology. He cites our collective awe over the Web, and its liberating potential, as well as “politics,” in the sense of either elected leaders (Obama in ’08) or revolutions (the Arab Spring and Occupy) who will magically “change everything.” And he thinks he spots where this inclination has gotten us into serious, serious trouble: Climate change. Deresiewicz writes:

[A] slow extinction that’s already underway—we don’t seem psychologically equipped to come to terms with [it]. The feeling has to linger, even among the most rational, that somehow, something is going to rescue us. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the lethargy, the apathy, the stunned catatonia of our response, the fact that we aren’t all running shrieking, every hour, in the streets.

I know I’ve had my hopes that, say, Al Gore would somehow lift public opinion into the stratosphere and force mass change on global warming, or that a charismatic young presidential candidate who warned of “a planet in peril” as part of his campaign tagline, would take the bold steps that the situation required, which would leave all the activism up to someone else. But it hasn’t, and here we are.

So I get what Deresiewicz is saying. We don’t necessarily believe these things are “divine,” yet we presume so much power on their behalf, power that only exists in our minds.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    There’s little doubt that human beings seem to like the idea of messiahs, deus ex machinas that will save us in our darkest hours.

    I’m human, but I don’t fit this characterization of sighing for “messiahs” or other magical or technological quick fixes for our problems.

    I like characters like Harry Potter and Frodo because they show the personal courage to face social disapproval, adversity, and physical danger in order to follow their principles. Despite the temptation to do otherwise, they preserve their integrity. Their defeating of a great evil that threatens all of humanity is nothing but a reason for them to be struggling, a dramatic literary device. Potter and Frodo don’t lull me into passive complacency to let someone else be the hero who saves me and everyone else. They inspire me to get past my fear and my lethargy, and to take personal responsibility for making situations around me better, despite the risks.

    Resisting defeatist thoughts is not the same as thinking that something other than ourselves is going to magically save our asses. We have more than a choice between Pollyanna thinking that it’s all gonna be fine, and cynical doomsday pessimism that just as effectively convinces us to do nothing about serious problems. We can get to work! We can spread awareness of the reality, get the Pollyannas and the pessimists off their asses, and fix the problems with hard work and sacrifice.

    • Spuddie

      My sole regret is that I can only upvote this once.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Touting Frodo over Samwise? *shakes head sadly* Tsk. Simply, tsk.

      • Gus

        Personally, I prefer Bilbo.

        • Gerry Mooney

          Me too, that’s one heck of a museum they’ve got there.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          As long as you’re choosing between the only two people with enough character to hold the ring and then willingly give it up, you’re gold!

    • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

      Very good point. I would add that, often, though there is one prophesied hero in these stories, there are often lots of other people participating in the fight. It’s often stated, or implied, they could not have done it alone.

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Like Samwise the Brave. :)

  • DougI

    Thing is though, Jesus never actually saved anyone from anything. Assuming that he lived nothing changed from the time before he was born to the time after he died. People will claim that “he died for our sins”. Yeah…and?

    • 3lemenope

      Apparently he’s getting around to it. Or so we’re told.

      • DougI

        He would, if only he had more money so donate to your local church today and he’ll be sure to put it higher on his list of things to do.

  • JT Rager

    I like this perspective. I find it crazy that so many theists are climate-change deniers. Well, it isn’t so crazy since the right-wing is so opposed to it. They find it so easy to justify not giving a shit about the Earth because “Why would God give us a planet that wouldn’t have enough resources for us?”

    Why would God make people gay if he didn’t intend for people to act upon it? Why would he give us such excellent critical thinking skills if he didn’t intend for us to use them?

    “He works in mysterious ways” somehow only applies to the latter two questions and not the former. Beats me why.

    • L.Long

      Also nothing really significant will happen in their life time so why should they change and give up anything for some vague future that may never happen anyway cuz Cheeses is cuming!!!!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Do not feed Mabus the troll. Let the narcissist starve.

    • Michael W Busch

      But do report him to SPVM (the Montreal police department), with copies of the offending comments. He’s violating the terms of his sentencing agreement.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Funny how you never see Joe Klein feeding starving narcissists.

  • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

    It’s not just messiahs we look for. In every part of our culture, our politics as well as our fiction, we seem to yearn for a “man on horseback,” the hero who will sweep aside all obstacles and solve our problems for us. Of course, Kings and messiahs are so popular because the main problem they resolve for us is our fear of being responsible for our own destinies.

  • Michael W Busch

    It is probably an unanswerable question, but I’m wondering: How much of the popularity of messianic-type narratives is due simply to many centuries of cultures that seriously advocate the idea of a messiah? This goes back far further than Christianity, obviously, so cause-and-effect would be very hard to disentangle.

    • 3lemenope

      It’s an interesting question. I’d hazard that the seeming universality of the trope points to it being primarily caused by human nature rather than a result of accreted human practice.

      • Michael W Busch

        When the stories go back for several thousand years, how are we to tell the difference?

        • 3lemenope

          The clue is when the trope arises amongst different peoples that couldn’t possibly have had contact. Like for example, the Trickster archetype pops up all over the place with far-flung examples like Coyote/Raven/Crow spirit totems in North America, Loki in northern Europe, Anansi in West Africa, Fox spirits in Japan, Hermes/Mercury in the European Mediterranean, and so forth. Prior to any possibility of cultural interchange, all these culture groups developed a character-type that occurs in their mythologies to play more-or-less the same narrative function.

          I’m no anthropologist, but I imagine that if the messiah trope could be shown to have appeared in pre-contact mythology in multiple locations, that would be strong evidence that the trope is respondent to something universal rather than something cultural.

          • Michael W Busch

            Alternatively, the messianic narrative is one of the many different types of stories that humans tell and happens to have been preserved when it has appeared. This includes potential biases in which stories were preserved from a given community when it made contact with another one (e.g. in western North American mythologies, the Coyote is variously a creator god and a messenger, as well as a trickster. But the latter is currently talked about more than the former, because those are the stories that fit into one particular pattern).

            But I am not an anthropologist either, so all I can say is that anthropology is frequently very messy.

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              the Coyote is variously a creator god and a messenger, as well as a
              trickster. But the latter is currently talked about more than the
              former, because those are the stories that fit into one particular

              Well, if you want it from the horse’s mouth *achem*, it’s actually because I find that I can get a lot more done when peoples’ expectations of me are lowered. You wouldn’t believe the exasperation of overt Creation, with EVERYONE coming to you with wish lists. There’s a reason that Santa Claus is more fun when you don’t know what he’s bringing you!

              Honestly, creating that YHWH character out of nothingness was easily my best idea, bar none. It’s like giving people your hot ex-roomie’s phone number* when they hit on you. Outsourcing prayer really frees up my calendar!

              *And let’s face it, he isn’t bright enough to Google my name and find me, no matter how pissed he gets about things. He’s YHWH; he can’t even Google himself, because his name can’t be spelled! I’m such a stinker.

          • midnight rambler

            I’m not an anthropologist either, but it seems to me that the messiah is simply a grander extension of the hero image that is fairly universal, or at least extremely common. Only instead of the hero just defeating the dragon to save the people from their troubles, he defeats all their opponents forever; and from there it’s a small step to become the savior of the entire world.

            Having said that, I think a true messiah trope is fairly rare, isn’t it (in terms of the number of cultures, not the number of current believers)? There is of course Judaism, with Christianity derived directly and Shia Islam somewhat indirectly from it, and their many offshoots around the world. Where else? I don’t know of any that existed in pre-contact mythologies. Both the Jewish concept of the messiah and real-life messiah-like figures in other cultures only arose under situations of extraordinary persecution, so I have to wonder if it’s something you would see. Notably, messianic Judaism isn’t that big a deal these days.

            • Michael W Busch

              The Buddhist idea of Maitreya some messianic aspects to it, but it is quite distinct from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim versions in that Maitreya is only supposed to appear when all of the teachings of Buddhism have been forgotten – which presumably includes the story of Maitreya.

              Of course, that hasn’t stopped various people from claiming to be Maitreya come-to-save-everyone.

          • Anathema

            I agree with what you say about how we know that the Trickster archetype is something near universal. While in principle, we could use the same thing to determine whether the same is true of the concept of the messiah, in practice it would be much more difficult.

            Even though our knowledge of American Indian mythologies comes almost entirely from post-contact documents, I think it is safe to say that their use of the Trickster archetype to characterize Coyote/Raven/Crow is probably a pre-contact tradition, because the Europeans that American Indians would have interacted with were generally Christians and thus unlikely to spread stories about other Tricksters that could influence their myths.

            On the other hand, those same Europeans were spreading stories about their messiah. Missionaries were actively trying to convert American Indians to Christianity. So I’m not really comfortable with citing figures in American Indian mythology as demonstrating that the concept of the Messiah has arisen multiple times independently. The same goes for messianic figures myths from other cultures that were only recorded after those cultures had been exposed to Christianity.

            So, if we want to demonstrate that the idea of a messiah is universal, I think that our best bet would to see if such an idea exists in South and East Asian countries, as I can’t think of anywhere else that is both outside of the Middle East and Mediterranean world where our concept of the messiah arose and had its myths written down prior to being exposed to Christianity or Judaism. (I’m not aware of any figures from those areas that fit the messianic archetype. But I don’t know much about myths from that area of the world, so my inability to name such a figure doesn’t mean much.)

  • midnight rambler

    Apocalyptic dread is also a persistent feature of the religious imagination, but this time it’s different. It isn’t God who’s going to end the world; it’s us. And we’re not going to end the world; we’re ending it. I grew up in the shadow of nuclear war….But this—a slow extinction that’s already underway—we don’t seem psychologically equipped to come to terms with.

    FFS. Climate change, even in the absolute worst case, is not the end of the world. It will be a massive shitstorm even in the less-bad scenarios, but certainly not comparable to all-out nuclear war. Avoiding climate change is about preserving our current way of life and the standard of living that has allowed us to pack 9 billion+ people onto the planet, by giving up small parts of that way of life.

    • 3lemenope

      I blame The Day After Tomorrow.

      Tornadoes, supercells, wolfpacks oh my!

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        I especially loved the flash-freezing based on a horrible misinterpretation of real-world frozen mammoth carcasses. I just wanted to scream, “That’s colder than SPACE! (even with somewhere for the heat to go.)”

        But it was kinda funny that the kids were being chased down hallways BY COLD.

        Not so funny that the dad sets off on this trek to find his teenage kid, all his buddies come along with him, all his buddies die horribly, but then he finds his kid so somehow that balances out even though at the end they all get rescued by someone else anyway.

        Sorry, I digressed. Where I was going with this is that I know at least two people who have clearly and sincerely stated that they think that movie is a real thing that could or will happen.

        One of them also argues that Star Trek warp engines are real technology that will work as soon as we find dilithium crystals. So many snarky analogies, so little time…

  • L.Long

    I must be really special if this guy is serious. Because I have never bought into this ‘superhero will save us all’ BS. Even in fiction it is BS. Example is Riddick, I just finish #3, he kills the bad guy and now has control of the army. But did he ‘save us from the monsters’? NO WAY! He has this army of thousands of believers and what is going to do with them? Other then his own life he has ‘saved’ no one, what is going to do, stand up and tell them all they believe BS and go home and be happy? And the army will believe him and go home?

    In fiction and reality there are no messiahs, which is why we all must work to vote and force the government to maintain the constitution and law, no superman will ever come to make it right.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      You had to see Chronicles of Riddick?

      I am so, so, so, so, so, so sorry to hear that. :-( That movie was so oblivious to itself that I almost thought it must have come from a Christian production company.

      • sk3ptik0n

        I think he is talking about the book series.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          That would make sense. I assumed he was counting the animated thingie as the second movies, but the language does suggest reading rather than viewing.

          The Law of Movie Novelizations says that the book must make more sense than the movie. But how can that possibly be?

          • L.Long

            SOOOoo sorry to disappoint but I have all three movies.
            And yes I like a certain type of bad movie.

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              I can’t fault anyone for owning Pitch Black. It’s the one and only flick that compares to the first two Alien movies. Its sheer brilliance is that it isn’t actually about Riddick; he’s just the catalyst for everyone else’s development. He’s the antagonist, not the monsters. Love it.

              But… Chronicles? Vin Diesel had a major hand in pushing for that movie to be made, which makes it seem as if he had never actually watched Pitch Black. “Jack was too weak! I’m ‘Kira’ now.”

              *blinks* While looking up a Diesel clip just now, I found out that he got Dame Judi Dench into Dungeons & Dragons after they met making Chronicles. He is now forgiven for that movie.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    Thanks very much for writing this! It’s really given me much to think about.

    I agree with Richard Wade’s excellent comment.

    That being said, I do think there is something in human beings that makes us like the one-prophesied-true-hero narrative. We certainly love stories of that sort, and even the way we talk about our history also shows this, when we pick certain figures to focus on, even when talking about events or movements that contained hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. Related to messiahs, there are also martyrs. Whenever people say atheists don’t have martyrs, I always think that’s only partially true. Certainly, we don’t have people like Jesus, but I think people of any particular opinion or persuasion tend to remember certain people with the same beliefs who were killed for what they believed in.

    I think the main thing with messiahs is whether we wait for one, or whether we take their stories to be an inspiration to act, and people can certainly do either. Because, ultimately, no savior or messiah is “destined” or “prophesied”. People become legendary because of their great actions, after they did something. (Even many of the prophesies in the Bible were written after the fact, and I remember hearing about how some scholars are able to get some idea of when they were written based on what the prophecy writer got right and wrong, i.e. events they got right happened before it was written.) When we realize that the legendary savior or messiah status happens after the fact, after someone has done something, then we can use the messiah type stories to learn good lessons, instead of waiting for a hero. (I’m reminded here of fictional heroes who don’t want to be heroes, but who end up with that status. Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins are certainly among them.)

    Part of this is also our own procrastination and denial of the severity of the various problems in our society. As much as we may be waiting for a messiah, we are (even more so, in my view) denying that things have gotten so bad that we have to do something now, instead of waiting. On the other hand, there’s also a tendency to think that the problem is too big to solve, and thinking we can’t do anything on our own, so some super big thing has to happen to solve the issue. (I’m reminded of the stories in which human beings are fighting each other, and the only thing that can get us to finally stop fighting amongst ourselves is a visit from space aliens.) There are lots of issues that require human cooperation on a large scale, and regular people feel as though we don’t have the resources to make that happen.

  • midnight rambler

    The problem with the cited article is that the only people who think Al Gore is, or was ever taken to be, the messiah of climate change are those who completely misunderstand it – Chicken Little types like Deresiewicz, and AGW denialists.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    His upholstery of followers? Why not draft his band-aid of orange peels instead? Surely it’s pirate monkey bug guts candy corn!

  • Michaela Samuels

    We love a hero. We love a story that shows a worthy victor against the odds. We love the underdog. We love a person who stands for good despite strong persuasion to give in. We can all relate to that in some way.

    I don’t think it means we expect there to be a real life Superman. I don’t think it even qualifies the use of the word “messiah.”

  • eric

    I think part of it is the desire for a quick, easy, solution. Messiahs are a type of literary magic bullet; they fix everything in one fell swoop, no hard work necessary. In contrast, pretty much nobody likes to think that any struggle will be a war of attrition lasting decades and taking the lives (figuratively in terms of their effort, or literally) of countless people.
    What’s more, this sort of ‘magic bullet man’ is encouraged in our fiction because it makes for tense endings. For a story, you want the big bag to BE very big, and very bad, all the way to the end. Then get utterly conquered – go from uber powerful to essentially insignificant – by the hero in one fell swoop. That makes the last scene incredibly tense.
    In contrast, imagine how a story would go without the messiah and the domino effect. It would be Aliens without the mother alien – just people killing the beasties until they’re dead. Or imagine LOTR if Sauron isn’t dependent on the ring – after it’s gone, his huge army then proceeds to wipe the human-dwarf-elf alliance from the face of middle earth, because his forces still outnumber their’s 10-1 or whatever. Neither is as appealing as having a big showdown…but a big showdown essentially requires a messiah figure. In fact, it might be fair to say that the big showdown is what creates the messiah figure. It’s part of what it means to be a messiah, that you are the crux of some important story point.

  • Gus

    I thought the reason there was so little action on climate change was that there is still a substantial number of people who don’t believe in it, believe we’re causing it, or believe it’s a problem; there are several huge industries with massive economic interests in the near term in stopping action on it; it’s damn near impossible to actually do anything about it in the near term, technologically speaking; the costs of inaction are sufficiently long term to most people to make them very unlikely to motivate them to suffer the extremely high near term costs of action; and the people who are motivated to action lack the power and resources to overcome these obstacles, as decades of real effort by people who lack big names and potential messiah status has shown.

    No, this is an attempt to oversimplify the problem and pretend that there’s an easy answer if we’d just act. It’s not everyone else who’s living in a fantasy world of messiahs, it’s Deresiewicz living in a fantasy world of simple problems with easy solutions. There are plenty of real obstacles and talking as if people are just waiting for a messiah to save them distracts from actually talking about the obstacles and issues and trying to solve them. Like, to choose an example I haven’t mentioned yet, how do you convince the people of China and India (and someday countries in Southeast Asia and Africa) to put off or stop modernization and expanding western standards of living to more people, since there’s simply no way for them to continue to grow and improve conditions without increasing CO2 emissions?

  • Gerry Mooney

    Hero myths are universal, timeless, and probably hard-wired into the human brain, and it’s a short hop from hero to messiah. Reallyreallyshort.